Effective nutrition for endurance and team sports athletes

Effective nutrition for endurance and team sports athletes

Nutrition is an integral part of sports performance and should be a high priority for all athletes looking to maximise their efforts whether that's for a weekly team sports fixture or a race you've been training up to for months - Nutrition matters.


Endurance athletes running outside


Good nutrition will provide the body with the optimal levels of hydration and deliver the right nutrients at the appropriate time to help sustain a high-intensity for as long as your event demands you work hard for. This blog will focus mainly on carbohydrate intake and race day/match day behaviours. For more on supplements click here.


Getting the basics right:

  • Have a plan of what to eat and when

  • Eat within the first hour of a race

  • Practice in training to know what works for you

  • Take on 30-60g of carbs per hour


On the morning of race day, breakfast is essential, our liver glycogen depletes overnight to maintain blood sugar levels while we sleep, this morning breakfast 3-4 hours before race replenishes these stores. Look for 200-300g of carbs, with small amounts of fibre, protein and fat, especially if you suffer from gastrointestinal issues when exercising.


These gastrointestinal issues can arise during exercise because blood has been diverted away from the stomach and intestines to supply the muscles with the oxygen they require to perform. This slows the rate of emptying in the stomach and can then cause stomach cramps if you eat more complex foods that demand a lot of digesting. This is why practising during training is essential, mix up the frequency of feeds, the amount of carbs in each feed and the amount of water you ingest alongside food to discover what works best for you!


Having water with carbohydrates promotes gastric emptying to prevent stomach issues, this is why sports drinks grew in popularity as they supply a blend of water and carbohydrates. Once again there is a myriad of choices on the market as not all sports drinks are the same, they have different percentages of carbohydrate solution therefore trial brands in training to find what works for you. Gatorade, Lucozade Powerade drinks have 6-8% carbohydrate solution and fall into the category of isotonic drinks, these have similar thickness and sugar:salt ratios as human blood. These are good for high-intensity exercise where delivery of carbohydrate is more important than hydration, however, these can cause those pesky stomach issues if drunk in high quantities.


Hypotonic drinks <6% carbohydrate solution provide the least amount of carbs but have the most hydrating benefits, best if you are sensitive to stomach issues or it's a very hot day and hydration is principally important. The other end of the scale are hypertonic drinks these are best designed for recovery, as the solution is more concentrated than the body, you need to move water out of the blood into the intestine to dilute the solution to then allow absorption, these should be drunk when calorie intake is of high importance and hydration can be covered over a longer period of time. 


The middle grounds are gels and chews. Gels provide 30-50g of carbs in a serving and chews (such as starburst) can provide around 5g of carbs per item. These are best for preventing the empty feeling in the stomach many get towards the end of a race, but are soft enough to be digested quickly.


Whole foods such as bananas, flapjacks and bars provide the most calories but can be difficult to digest for some people. It's recommended you eat these before a drinks station, allowing the water to help these foods pass through the stomach.




Creating a race plan of what you are going to eat and when during the race is excellent for discipline and to plan what to pack. Here is an example of how some professional cyclists do this.


Example plan of nutrition intake for cyclist


The orange bottle is a sports drink, blue is water, the feeds are bars and the red squares are carbohydrate gels. This nutrition plan was for the famous Paris-Roubaix one day race covering over 250km, where riders will be racing for 5hrs 45 mins or more.


Take a look at the course, are there long/steep hills where a good supply of carbs will be needed, is there an area 20-30 minutes before where you can ingest some carbs. Where are the water stations, can you plan your food intake around those. How long will you be racing for? How warm is it going to be?


Below is a race nutrition plan from Evan Dunfee - a professional 50km race walker.


Evan Dunfee Nutrition plan for a race


Ultra-Endurance events, defined as any event over 6 hours and can be as long as race organiser choose, events of over 70 consecutive days have been run. Due to the prolonged duration, the intensity these races are performed at is lower than traditional endurance events, this opens the door for a slightly higher fat consumption during the race. In preparation for this athletes will prepare by consuming a high-fat diet in the closing weeks to competition, this trains the body to become more efficient at metabolising fats. Although fats produce a lot of energy, they take a long time for the body to convert into energy, this long process is why it is only suitable for lower intensity exercise. By making the body more efficient at metabolising fat, you can perform at a higher intensity whilst using fat, allowing you to meet the multi-day demands of such races. Protein consumption has contributed to 20% of daily calories during the Race Across America, this is likely an effort to maintain as much skeletal muscle as possible.


Although fat consumption is higher, carbohydrates are still the dominant source of energy and athletes will still consume anything from 30-90g/hr during the race.


Team Sports Nutrition:


Team sports are different in many ways, the movement and energy demands are specific to each game played, although trends can definitely be found there's no denying a tight game between fierce competitors will increase the intensity and cause more fatigue in players who have been central to the performance. Secondly, the intensities vary each second, rather than sustained efforts seen in endurance sport the constant change between walking, jogging and sprinting requires the body to perform a complex metabolic dance, continuously switching between energy sources. The last major difference, particularly in football is that nutrition and hydration are mostly limited to pre-game and half-time (aside from the odd squirt of a water bottle whilst a player is down injured).


This last point raises the question, what can be done in these specific moments to affect performance. Professor Mark Russell of Leeds  Trinity University has conducted extensive research into football players' nutrition. He has found carb and caffeine intake pre-match and at half time improved sprint performance throughout the match and carb gels consumed at half time and full time improved dribbling accuracy during extra time.


Due to the limited time to refuel during the match sufficient carbohydrate stores need to be in place prior to kick-off, refer to the basics above about the importance of breakfast. Eating a high carbohydrate diet in the days leading up to a match will help fill the muscles with as much carbohydrate as they can store. The pre-match gels mentioned above will help top up liver-glycogen and blood sugar levels before the whistle is blown, for team sport athletes the preparation to perform is essential because once you're out on the field there's very little you can do.


For sports with rolling substitutions like hockey, it's recommended to drink an isotonic drink in small doses, this will deliver the fast energy source the body demands when performing at higher intensities than team sports with limited subs.


The role of caffeine:


Caffeine has been shown to increase alertness, sprint speed and endurance performance. Caffeine takes 30-60 minutes to take effect on the body and its effect lasts 6-8 hours, so having an espresso just before the competition begins is ill-advised, particularly in team sports you will be spending the majority of the game in a regular state then supercharging your performance in the clubhouse after the match and the journey home!


This synopsis from the International Society of Sports nutrition perfectly sums up the role of caffeine in performance:


Caffeine is effective for enhancing sports performance in trained athletes when consumed in low-to-moderate dosages (~3-6 mg/kg) and overall does not result in further enhancement in performance when consumed in higher dosages (≥ 9 mg/kg). 2.) Caffeine exerts a greater ergogenic effect when consumed in an anhydrous state as compared to coffee. 3.) It has been shown that caffeine can enhance vigilance during bouts of extended exhaustive exercise, as well as periods of sustained sleep deprivation. 4.) Caffeine is ergogenic for sustained maximal endurance exercise, and has been shown to be highly effective for time-trial performance. 5.) Caffeine supplementation is beneficial for high-intensity exercise, including team sports such as soccer and rugby, both of which are categorized by intermittent activity within a period of prolonged duration. 6.) The literature is equivocal when considering the effects of caffeine supplementation on strength-power performance, and additional research in this area is warranted. 7.) The scientific literature does not support caffeine-induced diuresis during exercise, or any harmful change in fluid balance that would negatively affect performance.


Point 7 in simple terms states that even though caffeine makes you urinate more, there is not such a large dehydration issue that it impairs performance. Consumption for a race should conform to a person’s normal intake of caffeine. It is generally recommended not to exceed a daily intake of 400 mg caffeine from all sources.


Here is a list of caffeine content in popular beverages:


Popular caffeine drinks


Popular caffeine choices


Use companies such as www.truestartcoffee.com who guarantee the caffeine amount in their product. As you can see from the image below there is a day to day variation in caffeine content from the same branch of Starbucks.


Variation in caffeine at Starbucks

In Summary:

  • Take your nutrition seriously

  • Plan effectively - your plan should feature pre-event, event and recovery strategies

  • Consume carbs regularly to maintain performance in prolonged events

  • Caffeine can positively affect performance


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